The University of Bath’s Centre for Development Studies works with real-life scenarios. Simon Horsford talks to Dr Oliver Walton about a recent project that has involved the assessment of the role of borderland regions in post-war reconciliation. Comic images: Lindsay Pollock and Positive Negatives ­

Humanitarian concerns, refugees, migration, conflict resolution and border controls are rarely out of the news. They are the issues of our time. Resolving them often appears to be an insurmountable problem. However the work and research being done at the University of Bath’s Centre for Development Studies (CDS) gives a glimmer of hope that, at least on an academic level, there’s the possibility of a more understanding future.

Dr Oliver Walton, a lecturer in international development specialising in war-to-peace transitions, NGO politics, conflict and peace-building, is one of a team of academics at CDS, which also encompasses economists, anthropologists and sociologists, who are collaborating with development organisations, NGOs and UN agencies.

Dr Oliver Walton

“We are all interested in issues related to conflict, humanitarianism, refugees and migration. Some of my colleagues are also dealing with concerns related to extreme poverty, others are working on child rights in the Middle East, or the lot of diamond miners in Sierra Leone,” says Walton

Walton’s most recent work has seen him researching a project assessing the role of borderland regions in post-war reconciliation. Focussing on Sri Lanka and Nepal, Walton and Professor Jonathan Goodhand, from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), made their case using a comic, illustrated essay format, entitled Living on the Margins. With graphic illustrator Lindsay Pollock and Positive Negatives, who produce literary comics and animations about social and human rights issues, the aim was to see how outlying regions can contribute to the peace process. They also looked at the sometimes conflicting and challenging role of ‘brokers’, who help facilitate negotiations between the government and these border regions in areas such as justice, devolution and post-war development.

“We were interested in these peripheral regions in Sri Lanka and Nepal and what their role is when war ends. It can be quite a volatile time with changes of government and shifts in political coalitions. What people tend to do is to look at what’s happening at the centre, but what’s going on at the margins can have a profound effect on the outcome,” says Walton.

An introduction to Nepal’s borderland regions; below left, describing
government moves after the end of the Sri Lankan war in 2009

“We chose these two countries because their civil wars had concluded at similar times, and they were going through a volatile post-war transition. But there were differences – Nepal has land borders, for instance, and its war ended with a negotiated settlement, while Sri Lanka is bordered by the sea and the war ended with a government military victory.”

Positive Negatives has had great success in getting across messages using the comic illustrations and the format was used brilliantly by the Maltese/American graphic illustrator Joe Sacco in his 1996 book Palestine. Walton added: “We felt a comic-style format allowed us to capture the complexity of the situation, but also gave a sense of place, was easy to understand and was accessible.”

Walton studied at the University of Cambridge, completed his PhD on NGOs involved in peace-building in Sri Lanka at the School of Oriental and African Studies before working as a research fellow at the University of Birmingham. He joined the University of Bath in 2013. He believes the key to many of the situations we face is about listening to outlaying, marginalised communities.
“Myanmar is another classic case of where what’s happening on the border with the Rohingya people is influencing what’s going on at the centre. I am also working with a peace-building organisation on a project looking at what’s happening in northern Kenya [which has a long history of ethnic conflict and marginalisation], the Ukraine [the eastern part of the country is pro-Russian] and Northern Ireland.”

An excerpt from an illustrated essay about Nepal after the establishment of a People’s Republic

Mentioning Northern Ireland brings up a discussion about Brexit and fears of a hard border. “Here’s an example of something everyone thought was an open border and the situation was stable and yet it [border controls] can still be activated and tensions arise,” adds Walton.

And whatever one’s views on the rights and wrongs or viability of Brexit, Walton suggests that in Northern Ireland “local communities feel they haven’t been consulted and there are concerns that their views have been treated dismissively.” It’s a theory that could also be applied to the north-south divide in England over the merits of Brexit. Walton says: “You could say that people from certain regions are being depicted as being from ‘Brexitland’, or as caricaturing a certain place. I think the media can be a bit dismissive and there is failure to understand the situation from both sides and to communicate this in the public realm.”

We move to NGOs and how they have been getting a bad press of late with accusations of abuse. Walton agrees that these organisations “need to have higher standards and make more of an effort.”
But this can be an issue “as they don’t want to be too transparent about their failures on the ground as it can undermine their source of funding and credibility,” he says.

Walton also pointed out that “NGOs tend to present a static image of under-development and poverty by suggesting your money can transform their situation. But it doesn’t reflect the complex realities of what is causing the problem, or that in many countries the situation has improved in different ways.”

For Walton, it is also a question of how the NGOs, including the major ones such as Oxfam and Save the Children, sell a message to the public and build support. They have to attract money from the public, but also tackle the root causes of conflict and violence.“One dilemma for NGOs is that that if they want to raise money, it is best not to mention conflict as you tend to raise more through a natural disaster. People wonder if their money is going to make a difference in places such as Yemen or Syria.”

Bath’s Centre for Development Studies is also involved in issues relating to migration and refugees – another hot potato in Britain. “We are looking at refugees from a European perspective, but also the impact on countries such as Jordan, which has had a huge influx from Syria and Iraq in the last few years.”

He has recently kicked off a new masters course in humanitarianism, conflict and development. Drawing students from around the world with a variety of on-the-ground experiences, it aims to provide them with skills in peace building and crisis response.

Walton’s work gives a fascinating insight into the work of the University of Bath. The achievements of ­­­­­­its Hall of Fame sports stars, such as Jason Gardener, Heather Stanning and Amy Williams, may be more high profile, but the work of Walton and his colleagues in the field of humanitarianism and how we view the world deserves just as much credit.

• Find out more onine:
Learn more about research at the University of Bath at an exhibition at 44AD Gallery, Bath from 18–24 February.